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02-01-12: Stan Lee Splashes 'Stan Lee's How to Write Comics' and 'Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics'

Lessons in the Form, From the Master

I was skeptical. How to Write and how to Draw comics? That's a tall order, even for the Homer of the modern comics world, Stan Lee. The problem is not giving good advice. Obviously the man has lots of good advice to give. Best of his kind is no understatement; neither is living legend.

But how-to books face a special challenge. It's one thing to dish out advice. Making it readable and getting it read are quite another, especially when you are talking about a medium as complicated as modern comics. But you can tell from the covers on in that Lee has this covered.

The secret here is to make your how-to resemble the end-product that you are helping your readers create. By making sure that 'Stan Lee's How to Write Comics' and 'Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics' both look a lot like comics, Lee goes a long way to help his readers accomplish these difficult tasks. These are not graphic non-fiction, by any means, but they are heavily illustrated and they partake of the look and feel of comics. They include lots of comics. Immersing yourself in these books can only help.

They're applicable beyond the world of mere comics however. For any writer, 'Stan Lee's How to Write Comics' is full of good writing and storytelling advice, and it's not just from Lee himself. In spite his own expertise, or perhaps because of it, Lee pulls his advice from a variety of sources. Obviously, he has worked with many of the best writers in the medium, and he willing to tap their talent for his how-to as well as his comic empire. For 'Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics', Lee is equally and obviously willing to pull from those with whom he has worked. But he's a capable how-to writer himself and lots of his advice centers around the idea of using art to tell stories. This is advice that is still usable even if you're not an artist.

Both books also benefit from a well-organized structure; just flipping through them you're bound to have a few decent ideas rub off on you. You'll get the origins and brief histories of comics, a list of the "tools of the trade," terms and their definitions, and then Lee (and the presumed army who helped him put this together) divvy up the trade into pertinent, focused topics and dive right in.

'Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics' and 'Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics' are, not surprisingly, given the place that Marvel currently holds in the entertainment universe, big budget productions. They're printed on heavy-duty, four-color slick stock and weigh about ton, so you'd best order them via your local independent bookstore. They're not cheap, but you'll definitely get your money's worth, even if you have no intention whatsoever of plunging into the comics world.

Reading 'Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics' and 'Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics' will give you a very intense insight into how to read comics as well as write them. And, for what it is worth, they're just damn gorgeous. Put them on your coffee table and they'll earn their keep. And, if you let them brush up against your brain, who knows, but that you might just learn something useful. Creativity is an unruly force. Like a radioactive spider, its effects are unpredictable, but should it strike, chance favors the prepared mind.

01-31-12: Archive Review: Lucius Shepard 'Floater'

Why We See the Way We See

Editor's note: Lucius Shepard is one of an amazing writer whose work is powerful, imaginative and accessible. You can never go wrong with Shepard. Find this one any where and any way you can.

Genre fiction can become either a tool or a trap. Readers are all too familiar with the latter. The shelves of bookstores are jam-packed with fiction written to fit a formula. The whole never exceeds the sum of the parts in the formulae utilized by cookie-cutter fiction. But in the hands of a talented writer, the tropes of a genre, from science fiction to mystery to romance to horror, can be liberating. Genre fiction offers writers a chance to reach outside of reality, outside of their own experience, and connect with readers on an intensely imagined fictional plane shared by reader and writer. There, the bond between storyteller and audience is forged on a visceral level of mutual literary heritage. Readers know what to expect — and good writers know how to maneuver around those expectations to delight the reader and create higher expectations for their next reading experience.

Horror fiction is particularly useful in externalizing a character's emotional landscape. Lucius Shepard's 'Floater', a short novel from PS Publishing, offers a beautifully wrought, terrifying vision of post 9/11 New York filtered through the tortured conscience of an NYPD detective involved in the tragic shooting of an unarmed Haitian immigrant. Shepard sets the scene and gets the grit, plunging the reader into the perspective of Detective William Dempsey. Hooked on a vicious mix of alcohol, pills and self-pity, Dempsey is going down for the third time. His fiancée has left him, he's been on leave for months with no sign of improvement, and the problem with his vision is getting worse, not better. There's a floater in his eye, a microscopic scrap of protein that casts a shadow over everything he sees.

Shepard's prose is the perfect mix of grimy city slang and emotive understatement. Dempsey's understandably a troubled man. On one hand, he must stand with those who were by his side or be cast out from the fraternity that has defined his life thus far. On the other hand, the shooting was clearly wrong — or was it? Could the victim have been a "wrong guy"? Shepard's writing is evocative but never too precious. It's also quite gripping. No matter how warm and safe you are, you'll feel as if you're on the streets of New York with the wind slicing through your jacket, one foot in front of the other in the sludge and slush of filthy snow on the sidewalks. The tension is palpable from the first page. There's clearly more to this shooting than Dempsey knows. In order to salve his anguish, and salvage his reputation and career, Dempsey must find out why the shooting happened. But in doing so, he will discover a whole new world of hurt.

Dempsey's investigations lead him from warehouse raves to storefront temples, Santeria ceremonies — and back to his little vision problem. This is a novel about why we see the way we see, played out through a slide into a realm of surreal supernatural revenge. Shepard's New York landscape is one of aching absence. Emotions, excuses, exceptions — nothing can stop the descent into reality as we do not ever wish to know it. Yet Shepard's tense plot and powerful prose can hardly be read fast enough. His words are a leash that will pull the reader to the final paragraph on the final page.

PS Publishing's package and presentation is no small part of the success of this taut novel. At 154 pages, it's too long for inclusion in an anthology, even one of novellas. But it's too short for the average American paperback or hardcover release. This is not to say that it's undeserving of such support. This is world-class writing. But PS Publishing has made its name in the novella and short novel format, and this lives up to their highest standard. It also benefits from British Fantasy Award winner Edward Miller's cover art, while World Fantasy Award winner Jeffrey Ford's introduction is spoiler-free and insightful.

'Floater' is an exceptionally good novel by a writer clearly at the top of his game. It uses the tools of two genres — police procedurals and the supernatural horror — to dive deep into a mind tormented by deserved guilt, and to evoke physical, psychological and cultural landscapes. In synthesizing the three, Shepard creates his own vision, derivative of none, as powerful as any. Readers won't find this landscape comforting, but it's certainly compelling. Shepard evokes the unease of a New York changed, cold, and unknowable. Read 'Floater'. You'll see.

01-30-12: Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel Meet 'Lunatics'

Craft, Timing, Character and Laughs

Apology degrades into argument before the second sentence. Philip Horkman begs for forgiveness, and Jeffrey Peckerman begs to differ. Profanity ensues, and with it, laughter. Lots of stomach-hurting laughter.

But laughter is not enough. What makes 'Lunatics' by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel worth reading is the sight of two relationships unfolding on the pages; the first, between Horkman and Peckerman, two clueless dweebs whose suburban battle escalates to international proportions. The second is between the two writers. Barry and Zweibel play off one another with giddy joy and skilled finesse. Readers might have to widen their notion of finesse, of course, to include the appropriate use of swear words, scatological humor, rudeness, and unintended cruelty to pretty much every form of life on the planet. Broad humor is an understatement; Barry and Zweibel have gone global, and not in a touchy-feely way.

Character is indeed the key that drives the novel, which unfolds alternating chapters as each man tells his story. Philip Horkman is a quintessential nice guy. He owns a pet store called "The Wine Store," and spends his Sundays volunteering as a referee for the local AYSO league. Jeffrey Peckerman is a forensic plumber with a chip on his shoulder and a short temper. When Horkman rules Peckerman's daughter offsides after she kicks what might have been a game-tying goal, Horkman goes ballistic. The confrontations escalate with an alarmingly believable and consistently hilarious ease.

For a book that reads like lightning and features more silliness than a 24-hour Looney Tunes marathon, 'Lunatics' is very meticulously and craftily constructed. Zweibel writes the Horkman chapters, and Barry the Peckerman responses. Horkman is a more fully-realized character in that he's somebody whose presence would not immediately drive you from the room. Peckerman, on the other hand is a complete jerk who, as the two of them become unwilling partners, is always ready to stab anyone in the vicinity in the back to get shut of the trouble he has brought upon himself.

The key to this novel is the prose written by each author. Both characters are perfect examples of the self-absorbed American. Zweibel and Barry move the action at a lightning pace and immerse us in their characters' perceptions; but neither character has much of a clue as to what is really happening around them. They experience the havoc they wreak with a set of blinders. Readers can easily twig to the bigger picture, and even then, we get the story as seen from outside by the media in a third level of perception. When you start to pull it apart it proves to be very sophisticated, but your reading experience will submerge all those complications in gales of laughter.

Barry and Zweibel are clearly having a blast and readers will as well. While Barry's Peckerman is of necessity less nuanced (a relative term when applied to a broad farce such as this) than Zweibel's Horkman, Barry does get to unleash the gross jokes and entertaining curses. The two men each meet a woman appropriate to their character on the journey, and beyond the jokes, what carries readers through the novel are the characters. These guys may both be first-class, self-absorbed dipsticks, but by virtue of the writers' skill, we like them both. 'Lunatics' may seem like one bug yuk, and it is, but it's a smart yuk. Barry and Zweibel get a rhythm going, then undermine it, then another which itself is soon undone.

The upshot here is pretty simple. If you want to laugh, read 'Lunatics.' Enjoy the bathroom jokes, the nudity jokes, the entertaining curses and outlandish situations. But make no mistake about it. Barry and Zweibel are smart writers who have the kind of craft and timing to make something very complicated read like a lark. There's a jazzy, almost musical feel to this novel. Relax, get in the groove, and enjoy the unique feeling of laughing as things go tragically right.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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